The Men’s Handball World Championship, to be held in Egypt in January 2021, will be one of the first major sports events to be held during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It will also be the last time the championship is hosted by just one country and the first time the event will have as many as 32 teams. As such, reaction to the tournament is varied and noteworthy.
The coronavirus is the main topic on the minds of organisers. The medical committee of the event held a press conference alongside the draw to announce general preventive measures which will be applied while hosting the tournament in Egypt.
Chairman of the Medical Commission Hazem Khamis said a Covid-19 officer will be appointed for the championship whose main responsibility will be contacting and following up with the medical staff of all teams.
“The Covid officer will be in direct contact with the medical staff of the teams to deliver any medical updates about the players,” Khamis said.
“Every team will have its Covid-19 officer so you needn’t worry about communication between the teams and the medical commission.”
The medical commission also announced that the spread of the coronavirus will decide the number of fans allowed.
“No one will attend without temperatures being screened. Attendance inside the halls may be 50 per cent or 25 per cent, according to guidelines set by the World Health Organisation,” Khamis added.
“There will be medical checkpoints inside the halls to deal with all cases including fans.”
Khamis said the commission is ready to deal with all cases in and outside the courts.
He said the organising committee is in direct contact with the International Handball Federation (IHF) to be aware of all updates related to the tournament and to be ready for all cases.
“We asked the IHF to increase the number of players on the teams to replace any suspected cases as well as allowing a team to complete the tournament,” Khamis said. “We also called on the IHF to allow every team to name four additional players in their squads,” he added.
Khamis said that players, administrators, tour guides, drivers and workers in the halls that will host the event will be checked for the virus every 72 hours. Journalists who will be covering the event will also be tested. A quarantine room will be ready in every venue and in every hotel where the teams are staying.
Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi told Al-Ahram Weekly that all the stadiums and indoor halls will be ready by the end of October. “We are almost ready but we have to wait for the tiles of the playground that will be received by mid-October from the IHF.” Sobhi hoped that by January fans would be allowed to attend the matches – 100 per cent capacity – “as this will give a great push to the Egyptian National Team. The Egyptian government with its various ministries headed by the president and the prime minister, is backing us in the organisation of such a big event that will greatly affect Egypt’s image in the West. The Egyptian Olympic Committee is also helping us in various aspects to make the event a real success,” Sobhi said.
“I am very happy that my dream is coming true after such a long time,” International Handball Federation President Hassan Mustafa told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Egypt hosted the draw of the 2021 IHF Men’s Championship and within months will host the event. The ceremony for the draw was fantastic and so will be the championship, I am sure. I am sure that the championship will take place on time and if some countries won’t be able to make it to the championship, we will ask other teams to come instead. We have to cope with the coronavirus whether we like it or not. All countries are re-opening and we are doing the same.”
Egyptian National Team Head Coach Roberto Garcia Parrondo laughed when asked why Egypt, as host country, chose Group G. “I don’t know why I chose Group G. We had only five minutes to make our decision, looking at the teams we realised that we have played a lot against Sweden and we know the players’ techniques, so accordingly we chose to be in this group. I also watched a lot of matches of the Czech Republic so I thought that this is the best group. We can never find an easy group in a world championship with 32 participating teams.
“We have been affected greatly by the Covid-19 pandemic as we had all our training programmes and friendly matches changed and re-scheduled but now we are training hard here in Cairo and Hurghada and I hope by the end of October we will be able to play friendly matches against some European teams,” Parrondo said.
The Belarus delegate at the draw, Andrei Baletski, talked about his country’s chances. “In the last eight years we haven’t missed a big event. We played in the last World Championship and we have been in the top 10 but the format now is changed and we are playing with 31 other teams. In Europe the format was changed as well from 16 to 24 teams but this edition of the World Championship will be different by all measures. We are expecting this time to be in the top six if the team is fighting for it. Covid-19 has made some changes but we have to cope with it. I am very optimistic, especially that the event is in Egypt. I can see from the draw ceremony that everything is well-organised and we are excited to come and play here.”
Egypt’s national team player Ali Zein, who is also a professional for Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates said, “I am very proud of the draw organisation. It was a perfect event. I think that our Group G is not easy but it is better than other groups. We have to meet Sweden which is a very strong opponent but I am sure we will be able to overcome it with our fans’ support.
“Our national team this time is completely different from the one that won the gold at the African Championship, so this mix will be very beneficial and I think that we have a very good chance of reaching the top four. We have been working hard and training well in our three-week closed camp,” Zein, who was named the best player in 2019 after he took his club Sharjah to the top of the handball league standings, said.
Ahmed Al-Ahmar, 36, the Egyptian national handball team captain who was named the top scorer, the most valuable player and the best back right in the African Nations Championship of 2016, told the Weekly: “I am very proud to be Egyptian after such a marvelous draw. It shows how powerful and civilised Egypt is. We have two tough matches in Group G, facing Sweden and the Czechs, so our job won’t be easy but I am sure we will do our best to win especially that we are playing at home. We have a number of stars and I am very optimistic. The players are up to the challenge and they are doing their best.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly